Much of the research and information learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been through working with combat veterans. In World War II, this traumatic experience was often called “shell shock.” Soldiers who experienced these symptoms during battle often believed they were reliving the trauma over and over.
Many of the soldiers would have vivid, repeating nightmares about the traumatic experience. Soldiers would often be so traumatized that they did not return to battle, and after they returned home could experience trauma triggers for years.
Many soldiers never recovered from the ordeal. It was not until the Vietnam War that this experience started to become known as PTSD. Since then, much has been learned and one of the most important facts is that PTSD is not limited to war veterans. Trauma happens to people in the civilian population as well.
A person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms has experienced trauma. For example, trauma may include, although is not limited to such things as: physical and/or sexual abuse, having witnessed a murder, experienced and/or observed violence first-hand, or living through a natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane.
A person with PTSD has directly and/or vicariously experienced trauma and has one or more of the following:
- Recurrent, involuntary intrusive memories
- Recurrent, distressing dreams that are related to a traumatic event
- Dissociative reactions (flashbacks) where a person feels or acts as if the traumatic event is recurring
- Distress related to repeated or prolonged exposure to internal or external cues that resemble to that person the trauma experienced
A person with PTSD may also try to avoid stimuli associated with traumatic event.
A person with PTSD may have altered cognitions and/or moods.
- They can’t remember parts of the trauma
- Negative beliefs about oneself
- Mood alterations that look and act like depression (hopeless, sad, diminished interest in activities, etc.)
- Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others
A person with PTSD may have alterations in arousal and reactivity.
- Irritable/angry outbursts
- Reckless/self-destructive behavior
- Hypervigilance (always on guard)
- Exaggerated, startled response (afraid of loud noises)
- Problems with concentration
- Sleep difficulties
A person with PTSD will have these symptoms for longer than a month.
(The above information taken from The DSM-V Manual.)
Trauma in the Bible and Today
In the modern world, the above PTSD symptoms have been experienced by many people. If not experienced firsthand, then most of us know someone who fits the description of PTSD.
The problem is that our brains are not wired for trauma. The brain tends to dissociate from these experiences one way or another. It’s as if the brain overloads because the trauma is difficult to process.
I believe God’s original intention for man did not include trauma experiences. Think about it, when Adam and Eve were in the garden, everything God had created “was good.” Before the fall, there was no trauma. Once sin entered the picture, trauma followed right behind.
In the chapters in Genesis following the fall, Adam and Eve appear to be traumatized. The story tells us that they are ashamed, humiliated, and living in fear of God. Not many verses later, Cain kills Abel. When one reads the story of Genesis, there is episode after episode of traumatic events. In fact, the trauma continues from this point through the whole Bible.
Of course, one should never stop reading at the first book. It is vital to continue to read about the Redeemer, Jesus, who came to save us from our sins and bring healing to the wounds caused from our own sin as well as the sins committed against us.
The good news is that God still heals today! There is help for people who have experienced trauma. I believe the Lord has given counselors wisdom not only to help war veterans, but thousands of others who relive trauma experiences every day.
The Role of the Amygdala in Relation to Trauma and PTSD Help
It turns out that the amygdala plays a very important role in trauma experiences. The amygdala is an almond-sized part of the brain, and there is one on each hemisphere (left and right). This part of the brain is the “fear hub,” which activates the “fight or flight” response.
When someone has a panic attack, emotional stressors convince the amygdala that the person is in danger. In other words, when a person is triggered by trauma, some of his or her emotions seem to get stuck in the amygdala. Knowledge of this fact can lead one to learn how to regulate the amygdala (or get the emotions unstuck) and thereby reduce the effect of emotional triggers.
Studies have been done that point to the theory that the amygdala can be trained to regulate some of the emotions that come from trauma experiences. I have found in my own practice that working on regulating the amygdala can also help assuage anxiety, anger, and other mental health problems.
Keep in mind that the amygdala is not a thinking part of the brain, but more of a reacting part of the brain. The potential help training the amygdala can give to someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) should not be underestimated.
Learning to regulate the amygdala may include using repetitious exercises that help the person to calm down or perhaps stay calm in the first place when first experiencing trauma-related memories. I will present some of these exercises later in this article.
It is worth mentioning that the trauma does not have to be an actual event. The brain just has to believe there is a traumatic event and the amygdala goes into action. For example, a person with PTSD can have a flashback and believe they are re-experiencing the trauma again a long time after the original experience, when nothing actually is happening.
It is also important to note that the exercises to regulate the amygdala are not a cure for PTSD but rather useful coping strategies that give the client a modicum of control with emotions that appear to be connected to stressful events, such as flashbacks, panic attacks, and anger outbursts.
A person with PTSD can learn these exercises combined with other coping skills, thereby getting ready for the next step of therapy. Once the client learns to regulate the amygdala, he or she can begin to share the trauma experience one piece at a time.
Should the person feel panic or fear while sharing the trauma story, he or she can stop sharing, do the exercises, calm down, and then return to the traumatic story material. The client learns this process bit by bit in the session and takes it home to use as often as needed.
This may be a slow process, should be done over time, and should not be hurried. Important note here: a therapist should build rapport with the client first, helping him or her to learn the exercises. I am never in a hurry for the client to share the actual trauma.
I also find that it helps me to share the fact that I have never had a traumatic experience to the extent that the client has, and I do not know firsthand what it is like to have PTSD. I ask the client to help me understand what they experience.
When I have done this with clients, it often builds rapport and allows them to start sharing. This builds trust and I don’t come across like a know-it-all. It really helps to listen in a nonjudgmental attitude to the trauma material. The client often has not shared this information with anyone else in the world.
In sharing the trauma episode, while regulating the emotions in the amygdala, it should get easier to share and be less traumatic at the same time. I do not tell the client they will never have another flashback or nightmare, but I give them hope of more control and better ability to cope with the past trauma and its triggers. This may translate to fewer or less frequent PTSD symptoms.
Coping Skills for PTSD Help
I first teach a client with PTSD how to do grounding. This is a cognitive behavioral coping skill to learn how to detach from emotional pain by distracting the brain. The brain is only able to think of one thing at a time. That is a scientific fact.
If a person can learn this coping skill, he or she will find that it helps the brain not to dwell on the traumatic material. It can at least give them breaks from the rehearsal of the traumatic event.
Grounding is often the coping skill used in session to lessen the impact while sharing the trauma story. If a client gets scared or freezes up, he or she can ground (distract the brain) until his or her emotions calm down. The story can then be continued from a calm position.
Grounding learned and practiced in session also becomes a skill that can be applied at home when the symptoms are often at their worst. Even partners can remind the person to ground and do it with them to help.
Five Exercises for Controlling PTSD Symptoms
Once grounding is learned, there are five interventions (exercises) I like to use to train the amygdala and help a client restore his or her emotional reaction to trauma to a calm baseline and be more at peace.
First, I teach people how to deep breathe, slowly breathing in and out and repeating this process at least three times in a row. The exhale must be done with pursed lips in a particular way to help the amygdala.
I encourage the client to do this type of breathing before and after all coping skills they attempt. It can help to bring the amygdala to a baseline that is calm like it was before the triggering event occurred.
Second, I show clients a coping skill called the K-27 Rub, which involves rubbing your fingers in a circular motion on the soft part of the skin between the collar bone and the breast. After a few minutes, a person may note the calming influence of this action. This coping skill affects the amygdala and may help a person to calm down.
Third, I teach people a coping skill called Bilateral Stimulation, which involves tapping on both the left and the right side of the body for a period of a few minutes. For this coping skill to be effective, the tapping must happen on both sides of the body (remember, there is a left and right amygdala).
The best time to tap is when the traumatic thought is strong. People who learn to do this skill can often calm themselves down when they are experiencing trauma triggers. I have learned that this also helps people with anger and anxious thoughts as well. Clients are at first dubious that tapping can calm them down. Then they try it, and I have had many clients who tap to calm down.
Fourth, I actually give the client homework to start to laugh every day. I explain there is a connection between laughter, its positive effect on our immune system, and on the amygdala. It has been proven that laughter increases certain brain chemicals, which makes the body’s immune system stronger.
Of course, the truth, “laughter doeth good like a medicine,” has been in the Bible for centuries — long before it was learned by scientists and used as a coping skill to help the amygdala calm down.
I ask clients to spend some time each day laughing. Find something funny on YouTube or Facebook, look up a favorite comedian, have a friend tell funny jokes, and spend some time laughing. This exercise has helped many people regulate their amygdala and learn to cope better with traumatic symptoms.
Fifth, I ask people if they meditate at all. The Apostle Paul encouraged readers to think on things that are pure, true, holy, etc. (Philippians 4:8). Interestingly, studies have shown that just 20 minutes per day of meditation can actually add lifespan to those who practice it.
There are many types of meditation. Scripturally, Christians are taught to pray, to meditate on God, and on His Scripture. I have learned that the most useful prayer is sometimes being quiet and listening. I may not always hear something or someone, but the exercise is valuable in itself to my soul. It empties my mind and allows me to fill it with that which is pure, holy, and edifying.
Meditation also allows to me to fill my mind with the promises of God. I encourage clients to start at five minutes a day and work their way up to 20 minutes a day. Twenty minutes of quiet can be a long time for beginners. Meditation also helps to calm the amygdala, which in turn helps with trauma.
I ask clients to do these five exercises and grounding often. Practice them all at first and then use the ones that work best. Develop a routine to use these exercises on a regular basis and have them in one’s repertoire to be ready when the triggers happen.
Sometimes a person can keep the traumatic triggers from happening. At other times, it is a way to calm down from an episode after it happens. Practice makes perfect. The goal is to have them ready when the symptoms are at their worst.
Christian Counseling for PTSD
If you think you have been experiencing trauma episodes as a result of PTSD, help is available! The Lord cares for you! If you have been praying for help, perhaps something in this article has spoken to your heart. Don’t try to do it all by yourself.
It would be my privilege to walk with you through the trauma experience, help you learn how to train the amygdala, and show you how to develop better control over emotions that seem uncontrollable. Call the office today. I look forward to hearing from you.
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